UNLESS they are especially dull or unusually unobservant, clergy almost inevitably acquire a collection of anecdotes as they go about their business. There are typically stories about a disastrous wedding, or a terrible baptism; and other assortments are gleaned from home visits, school assemblies, and the otherwise unendurable agony of post-ordination training. My favourite remains a mild-mannered parson with an unrepeatable reminiscence about an exploding corpse.
Anecdotage is an occupational hazard. It is not just that the ordained experience life in all its fullness — literally from cradle to grave. It is also that they have a predisposition to storytelling. After all, much of their life is made up of telling tales or interpreting narratives, whether that be preaching on the Gospel, delivering an elegy at a funeral, or simply passing the time of day with a parishioner. Little wonder the compulsion to narrate is so strong.
And if this is true for priests, then it is still more so for rabbis. Judaism is a religion seeped in stories: from the annual recitation of the Book of Esther at Purim to the long Seder-night ritual at Passover. Indeed, the Haggadah read at Passover does not just retell the story of the Exodus, but also recalls debates by preceding generations of rabbis on its meaning. In that sense, it is a sort of metaphor for Judaism as a whole, which is often not so much a religion of the book as a religion of stories and debates inspired by books.
Jonathan Romain fully conforms to these traditions in his latest volume. Confessions of a Rabbi contains little that is explicitly religious. Rather, it is a compendium of anecdotes from across his career: some funny, some sad, almost all of them, we’re assured, quite true.
The book opens with a slew of stories about sex: affairs, failed marriages, even a woman who sought to reduce her rabbi. It then goes on to explore other relationships — between rabbis and their congregations, within families, and among the Jewish community.
Some of these themes are universal. Dr Romain writes especially sympathetically about people coping with bereavement, for instance. Other stories are more specifically Jewish, not least the apocryphal tale of a dying man in a remote cottage, listening to the howl of a storm as it rages around him. Fearing that this will be his last night on earth, he calls for a priest. “You have been a pious Jew all your life,” his wife exclaims. “Why are suddenly switching faiths at the last minute?” “Don’t worry,’ he replies, “I’m not — it’s just that I wouldn’t dream of calling the rabbi out on a night like this.”
A Reform rabbi — that is, a liberal of sorts — Romain asserts that throughout his ministry he has been concerned with creating community. “To be a good Jew,” he writes, “you do not have believe in God, just do what God says.” But this is a book full of wisdom as well as humour. It shows the power of a good story.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Confessions of a Rabbi
Biteback Publishing £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70